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My shot made Joseph Dwyer famous. Did it also help lead to his death?

By Warren Zinn
Sunday, July 13, 2008

The e-mail was a punch in the gut: "the soldier you made famous -- killed himself last Saturday -- thought you should know."

I thought I'd put photojournalism and war behind me four and a half years ago when I traded in the dusty battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan for law school in Miami. But those words reminded me that you never truly leave the battlefield behind.

I knew at once what the message meant: Joseph Dwyer was dead. I drove home in a daze and walked into my apartment. And there was Joseph, on the wall, looking at me.

Dwyer was the subject of a highly publicized photograph I'd taken as an embedded photojournalist during the first week of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. It captured the young medic running toward safety with an injured Iraqi child in his arms. It was splashed across newspapers worldwide and brought Joseph instant fame. And for years, I'd proudly displayed the front page of USA Today featuring the photo. It was a tremendous accomplishment for me; I was only 25 when I took it.

Now, though, the picture was suffused with a different meaning. Joseph Dwyer was dead of a substance overdose at 31. I'd read news reports that he was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. He thought he was being hunted by Iraqi killers. He'd been in and out of treatment. He couldn't, his mother told the media, "get over the war."

But as I stared at his image on my wall, I couldn't dodge the question: Did this photo have anything to do with his death? News reports said he hated the celebrity that came with the picture. How much, I wondered, did that moment -- just 1/250th of a second when three lives intersected on a river bank in Iraq -- contribute to the burdens he'd brought home with him? If I'd never taken his picture, would he have ended up as he did? Would he still have been a casualty of war?

* * *

In the pre-dawn hours of March 25, 2003, less than a week into the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry Regiment was in Mishkab, south of Baghdad, contending with ambushes from all directions. I was embedded with the unit as a photojournalist for the Army Times. Sheltered for the night in the cramped quarters of a Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicle, I managed to sleep through intense fighting but was awakened when the ground started shaking beneath me. U.S. aircraft were dropping bombs on Iraqi fighters, who were using the cover of the nearby village on the banks of the Euphrates River to launch their attacks against the 7th Cavalry.

My eyes barely open, I grabbed my camera gear, threw on my helmet and bullet-proof vest and crawled out of the Bradley. I opened the hatch to see fire engulfing the palm trees that lined the Euphrates. A few minutes later, a man appeared, jogging up the dusty, winding road from the village toward the soldiers. His hands were in the air, one clasping a makeshift white flag.

Visibly shaken, he said that there were injured people in the village who needed immediate medical attention. Fearing an ambush, the unit commander told the man that the Army would treat the wounded but that they had to be brought to the road.

The man left. A few minutes later, he was running up the dirt road again, this time carrying a 4-year-old boy named Ali Sattar. Ali was naked from the waist down, and his left leg was wrapped in a blood-soaked white scarf. As the man ran toward me, I fired away with my camera, sensing that something special was developing before me. A medic suddenly appeared to my right and ran to the Iraqi man, who handed the injured child to the American soldier. The soldier was Dwyer. As both turned to run, Dwyer to the aid station and the man back to the village, I kept shooting, thinking, "I hope this is in focus, I hope the exposure is right, God, Warren, don't mess this one up." I knew this was a moment that the world needed to see -- a moment of American heroism, of American commitment to saving a people and to saving lives.

* * *

In June 2003, a few months after that incident on the Euphrates, I traveled back to Iraq to document Ali Sattar's fate. Back at Mishkab, I spent an hour showing residents the newspaper covers and photographs of the boy before I was finally directed to his house. His father walked out with Ali in his arms. The boy's leg injuries had been massive, and he hadn't been able to receive proper follow-up medical care from the local Iraqi hospitals. Ali couldn't walk without a painful limp, so his relatives mostly carried him everywhere.

We spent that afternoon together on the banks of the Euphrates, drinking Pepsis and Iraqi tea and sharing M&Ms as I showed the family the photos I had taken of Ali. He was a typical shy little boy, but he was enamored of the picture of himself, though his farming family didn't understand why it was such a big deal. As we said our goodbyes, an airplane passed above. The noise of the engines panicked the 4-year-old, and fear spread across his face.

Ali would be about 9 now. I don't know where he is, though I wonder about him sometimes. I wonder whether he has grown used to war and conquered his fears. And whether he's fully recovered and able to walk. I know there was a time when Joseph wondered about Ali, too.

* * *

Joseph and I hadn't had much time to speak in Iraq, except for spending a couple of hours together the day after I took the photograph, so I was surprised to get an e-mail from him one day a month or two after my return to Mishkab. I think he was back in the States by then, or at least not in Iraq, and he wanted to know whether I knew what had happened to the boy in the photo. I e-mailed back and told him about my trip to find Ali.

"I can't believe you went back to Iraq. . . . I was afraid the kid didn't make it," he replied on Aug. 6, 2003. "I wish I was there with you back at that village."

In November, he messaged again. "Hey Warren it's Joseph Dwyer the kid you made famous. Hope your [sic] doing well and staying safe." He asked whether I had any other pictures from that day that I could send him and whether I'd heard anything more about Ali.

In January 2004, I was slated to return to Iraq for a third stint. But after two rotations in Afghanistan and two in Iraq, I decided that it was time to hang up my cameras. The war had taken its toll on my family, my friends and me. I couldn't find it in me to go back to Iraq and risk my life again. That's the difference between me and soldiers like Joseph Dwyer: I had the privilege of calling it quits whenever I wanted to. The men and women of the Armed Forces don't have that luxury.

I left journalism, moved home to Miami and soon after enrolled in law school. I heard from Joseph a couple more times, casually. He didn't tell me that while I was struggling with Contract Law, he'd been struggling to fit back into civilian life after his three-month stint in Iraq. I first learned of his problems with PTSD in a 2005 news story about his arrest in Texas after a standoff at the apartment where he was then living. He thought there were Iraqis outside trying to get in, and he was shooting at the phantoms.

The last message Joseph sent me was on Dec. 1, 2004. "When I first got back I didn't really want to talk about being over there to anyone," he wrote. "Now looking back on it, it's one of the greatest things I've ever done. I hope you feel the same about what you have done. I truly believe you played an important role in this war. You told everyone's story."

Even as I transcribe that e-mail, it gives me pause. What happened to him after he wrote that? And did I do what he said?

U.S. soldiers perform courageous deeds daily, deeds that go undocumented -- and unrecognized. The difference between Joseph's act and theirs is that I just happened to be in front of him with a camera when he did his job. If a camera could follow U.S. soldiers in action around the clock, newspapers would be flooded with images of their valiant actions.

I think my favorite image of the war was one I took far from the battlefields, at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. A soldier had just finished his two weeks of R&R and was returning to Iraq. He walked through the concourse in his desert camouflage uniform holding his young son by the hand. As I photographed them from behind, the two stepped onto an escalator, the son barely reaching his father's hips. To me, that image is truly iconic: an anonymous soldier holding his child's hand as he heads off to battle, hoping that he'll see his son again, sometime soon.

Just like those daily, unnoticed heroic moments, there are also numerous soldiers who are suffering, unnoticed, from the wounds of this war, both mental and physical. Had I never captured that image of Joseph, it's likely that very few people would have paid any attention to this one soldier's death.

* * *

About a week after Joseph died, his mother called me. I'd been trying to contact her to share my condolences with the family and to let them know how bad I felt. Maureen Dwyer told me that she'd read the statements claiming that Joseph hated the fame the picture had brought him, and she wanted me to know that they weren't true. Joseph loved the photograph, she said. He'd always been proud of it. He just felt somewhat embarrassed at being singled out because so many other soldiers were doing exactly what he'd done.

Like Joseph, I was proud of and excited by my accomplishment with that picture. But also like him, I always had the sense that others deserved recognition more than I did. I'm a little embarrassed when people call the photo iconic or compare it with other famous photos. I was a photojournalist doing my job, just like hundreds of others in Iraq. There were countless pictures produced during the invasion that were better composed, better exposed and more compelling.

Photographers like to say that when they place the camera to their eye, it acts as both a physical and mental barrier to what's going on around them -- that somehow the camera can be a shield between you and the awful scenes taking place in front of you. The fatal flaw in that thinking is that the shield has a hole in it right where your eye goes. Nor does the camera block smells and sounds, which are rampant on the battlefield. So although it may be easy to say that you're just a fly on the wall, not a participant, the truth is that journalists are participants, in their own way. I've never struggled to the degree that Joseph and Ali did, but there are small things that affect me every once in a while. Certain sounds will get to me. Fireworks, for instance, make me jump.

I don't know that the photograph of Joseph was the best one I ever took, or my favorite, but I think it represented something important. At the time, it represented hope. Hope that what we were doing as a nation in Iraq was the right thing. Hope that our soldiers were helping people. Hope that soldiers such as Joseph cared more about human life than anything else.

But now when I look at the picture, it doesn't feel hopeful. It makes me realize that so many soldiers are physically torn and in such mental anguish that for some of them, hope has turned to hopelessness. That, I have to believe, is what happened to Joseph Dwyer, who was haunted by the ghosts of what he'd seen in Iraq, by fears he had lived with for too long. He could never leave the battlefield behind.

He was memorialized in that image trying to preserve life. But he could no longer preserve his own.

photo@warrenzinn.com

Warren Zinn covered Afghanistan and Iraq as a photojournalist for the Army Times from January 2002 to December 2003. He is now a student at the University of Miami School of Law.

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